The World Wide Web of terrorist infrastructure

Published: August 19, 2016
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Forensic services and firemen work around burnt out taxi vehicles after a blast in Ankara. PHOTO: AFP

The past 12 months have been a difficult period for many around the world. If before it was possible to believe that terrorist attacks were rare and isolated incidents aimed specifically at those Western powers that intervene militarily in troubled majority Muslim territories, that theory no longer stacks up. The wave of attacks over the past year has been thick, fast and brutal and it has targeted countries across Europe, the Middle East and Asia for reasons wider than simple military revenge.

Since the start of August alone, there have been three vicious attacks in countries outside the western states commonly associated with the scourge of terrorism. On August 8th, after the president of the Balochistan Bar Association was shot on his way home, the hospital he had been taken to was targeted by a suicide bomber. This was a classic tactic of organised extremist groups that twin or triple their attacks to catch mourners or those who gather at the original attack site. Its brutality took the lives of 70 people and injured 120 others. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

Shortly after, on August 12th, a string of eleven bombs were set off in Thailand, in Phuket and Hua Hin, a favourite retreat of the royal family. Again the twin attack tactic was used, indicating organised terror. The Thai authorities have refused to consider the attack as international terrorism nor would they link the attack to separatist insurgent groups. Instead the attacks were blamed on the Red Shirts, a group that supports the ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and seeks to combat the influence of the military in Thai politics.

However, it has been noted that the style of the attack does match the separatist groups based in the south of Thailand where an insurgency has been raging for over 12 years and has cost over 6000 lives. Whichever hand lies behind the attack, this was a clever use of up-to-date terrorist tactics, the nature of which have been seen before.

The operational infrastructure of terrorist groups, though diverse in the intention of its users, clearly stretches further than Western Europe, and across into Asia. By this, weak security is exploited, chemical substances are transported covertly and willing sacrificial agents are chosen and trained right across the globe. Behind the attacks tend to lie professional and ever more experienced planners that can communicate and coordinate with each other via online, encrypted means.

This aggressive succession of quick attacks was repeated only yesterday and today in Turkey in two attacks that each used a car bomb to target police stations. The attacks this time were blamed on the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the familiar proclaimed enemy of the Turkish state. The first killed three persons, including a police officer and injured 73 others. The second killed three persons and injured 217 others. These are shocking numbers that reflect the regional follow on from the worst ISIS attack yet recorded – that which occurred in Iraq on July 3rd this year. That attack, using a new and more dangerous type of car bomb, coupled with the lack of escape routes from the shopping centre targeted, killed almost 300 people with a single blast and injured many more in an incident replete with horror and devastation.

There is a theory in current international affairs that the ‘lone wolf’ attacks of the sort that have been troubling Germany and Britain are not in fact the handiwork of isolated individuals, but form part of a wider category of organised attack. The theory states that the attacker has either been trained by an organisation, or put in touch via social media with a ‘virtual planner’ who may set the target, determine the timing and provide technical assistance, or has been in contact with a militant group via online communications but without receiving specific instructions. These ‘fake’ lone wolf attacks distract authorities and deflect attention from more sophisticated operational planning. They are, for the most part, a smokescreen for the larger attacks that follow, such as those described above and including that which occurred in Nice on July 14th when a truck drove in to a crowd of revellers, killing 84 and injuring over a 100 others.

This deflection is not just the result of the action of terror groups but also of national authorities that seek to maintain the myth of truly lone wolf attacks. For example, the July 7th bombers in London in 2005 were widely labelled as home-grown and autonomous but a year later a video released by al Qaeda showed the cell’s leader pledging allegiance to the group through martyrdom. The reluctance of the authorities to make public this information, if it was known, is a mystery.

There is a ready army of over 20,000 fighters, many from prosperous, democratic countries, willing to perform these sorts of terror attacks. Their allegiance is due to what Schelling calls a “psychic moment” in which the decision to engage in terrorism is taken. This decision is based on rational behaviour and an explicit and internally consistent value system. For the jihadists, this is often Salafism. For the separatists, it is a particular strand of political ideology mixed with liberation theory.

Schelling, whose outlook on international affairs is based on mathematical game theory, states that,

“Terrorism is contiguously suggestive and furthermore looks easier the more there is of it… As terrorism grows locally, the easier it is to get away with it because counterterrorist forces are overextended and saturated.”

Simply put; the more terrorist attacks there are, the deeper they sink in to the psyche and the more common they become in future. In the words of Bacharach, there is “a progressive internalisation of these externalities”. Thus the British attacker at Leytonstone tube station in London who shouted “this is for Syria” as he conducted his attack, and the two murderers of an off duty soldier in Woolwich, who stated that “in our lands women have to see the same” are both the reflection of this worldwide external violence and the continuation of it also. With each attack, the violence of terrorism seeps in to the global psyche waiting for a release valve somewhere else in the world.

ISIS, which has recently begun to distribute its own textbooks to those interested in its framework, works by delivering both material and ideological enticements such as territory, Shariah law and money for its fighters gained through oil revenue, ransoms, looting and taxes. However, once the enticement framework begins to fail, it leads to desertion. Excessive taxes, the inability to pay fighters and the closure of hospitals and schools lead fighters to choose to return elsewhere. It has been suggested that anti-terrorist measures could chip away at ISIS by crippling its governance abilities and promoting this desertion effect. As an important corollary, the wounds, trauma and violent ideology of returned fighters must not be allowed to fester in their countries of return.

President Barack Obama in February called a summit identifying the problem as one of “violent extremism” and called on prevention mechanisms to address not just ‘operatives’ that conduct terrorist attacks, but ‘influencers’ too. This would require tailoring de-radicalisation programmes alongside the strategy of militarily “cutting off the snake’s head.” The summit identified problems with the current state of de-radicalisation programmes as being too local, too focused on mental health and economics. This risks overlooking trans-regional ideologies that radicalise to create violence such as frustration over abortive secession attempts, or attempts to carve out self-determined territory as in the case of Thailand and Turkey, or frustration over the perceived persecution of fellow religionists in the case of ISIS and the Taliban.

Pakistan has produced a National Action Plan following the Peshawar school attack, but has not yet formally adopted a de-radicalisation programme despite the urging of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute. There is a great need now to create such a programme.

Pakistan has seen its fair share of terrorist and sectarian violence. However, it is far from alone in this. Terrorist attacks are on the increase and this summer has been particularly eventful. Thanks to social media and encrypted communication, as well as the existence of organised terrorist propaganda machines run or populated by experienced virtual planners, the infrastructure through which terrorists plan and enact their attacks is wider than ever before. In truth, as long as the enticements to join a terrorist ideology continue, so will these attacks, whether small in scale or large. As terrorist skill in bomb making evolves, casualties increase in droves. The tactic of a quick succession of follow up attacks and the recruitment of so-called lone wolves also bump up the number of victims.

The idea that it is the values of one particular country that are under attack is no longer quite accurate. To move from mourning to action will require a good understanding of the roots and means of this violence – and it is not now exclusively local. Rather, the violence is a self-perpetuating and increasing whirlpool for frustrations that are left unaddressed at the local and transnational level. The time for programmes to address these frustrations is undoubtedly here.

Shereen Akhtar

Shereen Akhtar

The author is a barrister practising in London. She is interested in issues of diversity, interfaith relations and human and minority rights. She tweets @shereentwits twitter.com/shereentwits

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • numbersnumbers

    In case you failed to notice, Pakistan’s National Action Plan (NAP) was only partially implemented since it is opposed by various vote blocks inside Pakistan!Recommend

  • siesmann

    Mullah has poisoned the minds of youth by spreading a distorted ideology.Terror will remain unless Mullah is removed and confined to mosques exclusively,and constantly monitored for inciting hatred and violence. Textbooks and literature need to be monitored(again what Mullahs have put in there) and hatred and violence parts removed.Concepts such as Jihad,Ummah,and Khilafat are outdated and need to be interpreted in the proper context and history.Recommend